Authorities initially attributed the attacks to a lone sniper, dubbed by journalists the "Beltway Sniper", the "Washington Sniper", the "Serial Sniper" or the "Tarot Card Killer" (see serial killer).
The sniper attacks began October 2, 2002, with a series of five fatal shootings in 15 hours in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburban county north of Washington, and continued for the next three weeks in the Washington metropolitan area, filling residents of the region with fear. Police received messages left at the murder locations and believed, correctly, that the killer worked in concert with another person.
The shootings occurred at gas stations and in parking lots outside supermarkets, restaurants, and schools in a rough circular pattern around Washington. The victims were apparently selected at random, crossing racial, gender, and socioeconomic categories. The locations of the attacks always had close freeway access. It is believed the sniper used the circular Capital Beltway to get from place to place.
The attacks were carried out with a Bushmaster XM-15 semiautomatic .223 caliber rifle, the civilian equivalent of the U.S. military's M-16assault rifle, at a range of 50 to over 100 yards. The rifle came from Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington, which did not report the missing rifle as required by federal law.
Police responded within minutes to reports of attacks during the three weeks of the sniper attacks, cordoning off nearby roads and highways and inspecting all drivers, thereby grinding traffic to a halt for hours at a time throughout parts of one of America's largest metropolitan areas.
Eyewitness testimony to the attacks was mostly confused and spotty. Hotlines set up for the investigation were flooded with tips, as was the post office box set up for tips by mail. The most common tip was that the snipers were driving a boxy white van.
The sniper attempted to engage the police in a dialogue, compelling Moose to tell the media cryptic messages intended for the sniper. At several scenes Tarot cards, including one Death card upon which was written "Dear Policeman, I am God. Do not tell the media about this." This information was leaked to the press. Later scenes had long handwritten notes carefully sealed inside plastic bags, including a rambling one that demanded $10,000,000 and threatened the lives of children in the area.
It has been alleged that the snipers engaged in a series of previously unconnected attacks prior to October 2.
During the period of the attacks, the North American media devoted enormous amounts of airtime and newspaper space to news of each new attack. By the middle of October 2002, all-news television networks were providing live, ongoing coverage of each new attack - with the coverage often lasting for hours at a time.
On October 17, 2003, on USA Network's USA cable station, a TV movie was shown that was based on the events that occurred in 2002's sniper incident. The movie's name was . In 2003 a book was published written by former Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose.
During their respective trials that month, Muhammad and Malvo were each found guilty of murder and weapons charges. The jury in Muhammad's case recommended that he be sentenced to death, while Malvo received a sentence of life in prison. The judges concurred in both cases, and Muhammad is set for execution in October 2004.
The next wave of shootings occurs in Montgomery County in a 15-hour period. James L. Buchanan, known as "Sonny," is shot dead while mowing the grass at the Fitzgerald Auto Mall as part of his landscaping. Taxi driver Prem Kumar Walekar is killed in Aspen Hill, Maryland while pumping gasoline into his taxi at an Amoco station. Sarah Ramos dies while reading a book on a bench at the Leisure World Shopping Center shortly after she exits a bus. Lori Ann Lewis-Rivera dies while pumping gasoline at a Shell station in Kensington, Maryland. Pascal Charlot is shot while walking on Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC. He dies less than an hour later.
Linda Franklin is shot dead at about 9:15 a.m. after she finishes shopping at a Home Depot in Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside Falls Church. The police receive a supposedly very good lead after the October 14 shooting, but it is later determined that the witness was inside at the time and was lying. The witness was arrested for interfering with the investigation.
Richmond-area police arrest two men, one with a white van, outside a gas station. The men turn out to be illegal immigrants with no connection to the sniper and they are remanded to the custody of the INS.
Bus driver Conrad Johnson is shot dead while standing on the steps of his bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Chief Moose releases part of the content of one of the supposed sniper's communications, in which he declares, "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time."
Ballistics experts confirm Johnson as the 10th fatality in the sniper attacks.
In a yard in Tacoma, Washington, near to a sniper school operated by the United States Army, police search with metal detectors for bullets, shell casings, or other evidence which may link to the snipers. A tree stump believed to have been used for target practice is seized.
John Allen Muhammad (born John Allen Williams) and Lee Boyd Malvo (also known as John Lee Malvo) are found sleeping in their car, a blue 1990Chevrolet Caprice, at a Maryland rest stop, and arrested on federal weapons charges. A .223-caliber weapon and tripod are found in a bag in Mr. Muhammad´s car. Ballistics tests later conclusively link the seized rifle to 11 of the 14 bullets recovered from earlier attacks. Mr. Muhammad was previously a member of the United States National Guard and later the United States Army, where he earned medals for expert marksmanship. His relationship with Malvo was initially unclear.